Snowhere like it...Skiing the Dolomites
As I stepped out for some fresh air I heard a familiar accent.
‘Oh you’re Irish,’ I said to the lady outside.
‘Yes, we’re from Cork,’ she replied, adding ‘isn’t this place just fantastic?’
I had to agree with her that yes, this place was indeed, quiet spectacular.
We were in the picturesque north Italian town of Selva Val Gardena, located in the heart of the Dolomites region where we were both relaxing after enjoying an exhilarating day skiing on the slopes of the surrounding mountains.
As it was St Patrick’s Day it seemed appropriate to stop for an obligatory après ski beer in the Irish bar near the town square where I had bumped into my fellow native skier.
We swapped excited ski stories of our adventures and as my new-found friend left she turned and asked me to do her a favour.
‘Sure,’ I answered.
‘Just don't tell anyone about it,” she said in theatrical stage whisper. ‘Let’s keep it a secret.’
Me with the Sassolungo Mountain in the background..
I just nodded as I didn’t have the heart to tell her that I was about to go back upstairs and re-join my companions in the pub who happened to be a group of travel writers from various Irish media outlets, sent here on a mission to report back on what, for Irish skiers, is set to become the next big thing on the slopes.
Now, skiing in the Dolomites has hardly been a secret to those in the know who have been travelling here for years but it won’t be long before word spreads and soon this blissful, peaceful spot will become extremely popular among the Irish contingent joining their European counterparts on the slopes of what is one of the best skiing resorts in Europe.
We travelled to what is one of the biggest ski resorts in the world....Yes, the world, not just Europe.
And for me, even though I had skied some of the more obvious spots in Europe, in France, Austria, and northern Italy since learning how to snowplough on the baby slopes of Andorra, it was still an eye-opener.
Sure, I had heard of the Dolomites in geography class in school but had never ventured there to try out the skiing, so let me let you in on the secret.
It’s nothing like those other resorts...it is far, far better.
Think wide and easy reds and beautiful blues…thrilling blacks and a futuristic transport system that has you whizzing around hundreds of kilometres of runs.
Rocking bars on the middle of the mountains, an eclectic fusion of Mediterranean and Alpine food and of course the sheer La Dolce Vita of our Italian cousins and you have the basics for what will be a ski holiday to beat the band.
Another fantastic 'hut' with amazing views..
This place is amazing but you’re going to have to act quickly before it becomes the latest hotspot for those looking for a special ski holiday this season.
Irish operator Crystal Ski Holidays (Ireland) is running a direct flight event Saturday from Dublin to Verona, with a two and a half hour transfer to the Dolomiti Superski area.
We travelled with Ray Scully, the managing director of the company, and Michael Collins of travelmedia.ie who brought Sunday World along to show us around what is one of the biggest ski resorts in the world.
Yes, the world, not just Europe.
Here, the Dolomites range straddles the borders of the far northern Italian provinces of Belluno, South Tyrol and Trentino where, stretching away over the horizons, there are 12 ski areas, comprising 1,200km of slopes, 450 lifts and more than 400 ‘huts’ as the locals call them but which can range from cool bars to rustic restaurants where you can take the skis off and put your feet up during a break.
As our transfer from the airport took us up into the mountains it was hard to fathom just how big this place really is but for now I was just aware of the anticipation any skier anticipating their first run of the season feels in the pit of their stomach.
I had every intention to get out there and hit the slopes as soon as we arrived as it was still early afternoon but when I stepped into the foyer of the four-star Hotel Tyrol that would serve as our base for the trip I was handed a glass of Prosecco by our charming host Bibiana. I relaxed and let the sudden change in pace settle over me.
Hitting the slopes with the gang...
Bibiana comes from a long family tradition of catering for guests from around the world since her family bought land from the local Countess of Wolkenstein in Selva Gardena in 1964 when it was a still a small town surrounded by farms.
In the summer of 1966 the hotel opened and immediately attracted the entrepreneurs and aristocrats of the day to this mountain retreat and it is this class that is carried on by the South Tyrolean Bibiana and her Tuscan husband Maurizio who are celebrating the hotel’s 50th anniversary this year.
Together the pair have created the hotel of today, an amazing mix of old world class and modern facilities that focus on the whole concept of wellness and include a gym, an indoor pool and spa, indoor and outdoor hot tubs, sauna and steam room.
You don't just stay at the Hotel Tyrol, you live there with Bibiana and her Tuscan husband Maurizio and the other guests who become more like one big family from all over the world.
To the clinking of glasses we settled in for the afternoon while all around us guests came and went in an atmosphere of gentle calm.
After a stroll through this exquisite hotel I was temporarily lured away from the slopes and into the swimming pool where I eased my travel weary bones ahead of the next morning’s action.
You don't just stay at the Hotel Tyrol...you live there with allthe other guests who become more like one big family from all over the world.
As I lay back in my room looking out the window at the view of the glistening white mountains I had to laugh at the comparison between this and my first Italian ski experience, in Livigno.
It was a great place to hone my new found ski skills but typically, on a lads’ trip, we roughed it up with three of us crammed into one room. By the last day of the holiday our stinking ski gear and boots cluttering up the room left it looking like the black hole of Calcutta while now I was in a lavish accommodation fit for a king with enough space that I wondered for a moment whether I was sharing it with some of my travelling companions.
Stepping out onto the fine wood terrace of my Alpine decorated room I breathed the crisp air while gazing at the sharply rising peaks of the surrounding mountains.
Up,up and away on the Dolomiti Superski!
After getting fitted out with our gear in a nearby ski shop we arrived back at the hotel where we could put our boots and helmets into our own personal ski locker, before heading upstairs for yes, more prosecco and the finest dinner of traditional Alpine fare mixed with more recognisable Italian dishes. We dined on tasty aperitifs, zesty antipastos, and fresh pasta and enjoyed an absolutely vital Caffè Macchiato as a finishing touch. For dessert spinach dumplings and apple strudel are South Tyrolean classics and every evening was a tribute to the culinary delights of Bibiana’s and Maurizio’s family traditions.
The couple are dedicated in selecting the raw materials almost exclusively from local producers except the fish that arrives fresh from the Tuscan sea and their fresh pasta and bread, cakes and jams, fruits and vegetables, meats and high quality cheeses are all staples of the kitchen.
The next morning we were up early to stuff ourselves over a hearty buffet breakfast and while it was tempting to linger over our Caffè Macchiatos and glasses of yet more Prosecco we were keen to get out the door and join the lines of skiers already gathering under pure blue skies at the nearby lift.
Well,it was St Patrick's Day!
The hotel has direct access to the slopes as it is located next to the Nives drag lift, which takes you to the main Ciampanoi gondola running to the top of the mountain but first we gathered at the top of the chair lift for a gentle run back to the village.
Any rustiness was eased with a nice glide back to the chair lift where we headed back up to catch the gondola for a ride up to the top of the mountain.
This being mid-March the season was in full swing and the area had benefited from copious amounts of snow in the preceding days so it was busy enough but we had no problem getting our group onto the gondolas.
Then it was up, up and away to the top of Ciampinoi Hill where we stepped out into a scene of such bewildering beauty that it actually caught my breath. In every direction rose majestic mountains glistening in the early morning light as massive cumulus clouds tumbled over their peaks. The sight stopped everyone in their paths as they attempted to capture the moment on their phones.
Rocking out at one of the bars high up on top of the mountains
Before we set off we were given an introduction to the region by Diego Clara (the Media & PR, manager for Dolomiti SuperSki),who explained what we were looking at.
He told us how the Sella Ronda is like a huge carousal with the 3,000-metre-high Sella massif at its centre. For our first day we would be taking in part of the 42km run around the massif. “This entire area encompasses many nice resorts here in the north and the south so everyone can find what they looking for,” Diego explained. “Here are nice blue and red slopes for beginners and intermediates and some nice thrilling blacks for those who want to take on a tougher challenge.”
Motioning around with his skies Diego pointed out the various villages nestled in the valleys below, the distant white sheen of a glacier and of course, “the most important mountain, the Sassolungo Mountain, which means the long mountain”, which reared up over our heads. Its imposing bulk is a constant feature in this part of the Dolomites and we would catch a glimpse of it every day wherever we were skiing.
Astounding scenery greets you everywhere in the Dolomites..
Diego also pointed out that the Val Gardena valley is just one of the 12 ski regions dotted around the region and with several of them directly linked to each other it enables intrepid skiers to traverse over 600km of slopes without having to take off their skies.
And then we were off, on our very first run of the week and Diego selected a very nice red to get us started before we relaxed into a few blues and more reds.
The sheer width of some the runs meant you could take long sweeping curves from side to side without looking over your shoulder for oncoming traffic.
As our confidence soared the sheer freedom on the slopes saw us picking up the pace
As our confidence soared the sheer freedom on the slopes saw us picking up the pace but we were still astonished when of our group, who had a speedometer device in his pocket, pulled it out to show us that we were regularly hitting 60 plus kmph without breaking a sweat.
The runs were perfect for the beginners and intermediates among our group and when it came to pick up the pace a little the more experienced members set off on a couple of high speed black runs that lived up to their billing.
Over the course of the next few days we passed some stunning scenery with film set views over the mountains and every day was bathed under beautiful blues skies. Apparently this area sees over 300 sunshine days every year so there was little risk of rain while we were there to dampen our spirits.
I had noticed large numbers of children and on our second day our guide, the lovely Claudia Rier from Alpe di Siusi, explained how the Dolomiti Superski area is perfect for children.
“We have a lot of ski instructors and schools for children here, as well as snow parks for the little ones,” she explained.
The sun sets after another beautiful day in the Dolomites...
It has proved a major success with schools throughout the continent bringing children here to learn how to ski and it was charming to have a mix of people out on the slopes.
As we explored further into the mountains we would encounter the staff of some of the huts wearing lederhosen and speaking a mix of German with Italian as the Austrian influence remained strong in some parts. Some of the locals even speak their own native language, Ladin that is unique to this part for the world.
We covered a lot of of ground in our few days in the Dolomites , and spent each evening laughing with our hosts back in the hotel. Selva Val Gardena doesn’t really do the big, brash après ski, dancing on the table with your ski boots on, but on our last day we heard the sounds of some rock music in the valley below. Intrigued, we stumbled into the Baita Panorama Hutte where, on a stage outside, we rocked out to some local band that was knocking out some hometown numbers as well as some kick-ass tunes.
By the time we set off for the run back home the sun was setting and it took us a lot longer to get back down the mountain as the setting sun turned the snow into a blaze of gold. Mesmerised by the sight we kept stopping to take more pictures before we had to finally turn our backs and wave the mountains a reluctant arrivederci.
The 4.5* Hotel Tyrol is part of Crystal Ski’s ‘Finest’ collection, with prices starting at €1,379 for half board, per person.
3 star self-catering apartments for four sharing start from €549 at the Wiesenheim apartments or 3 star half board at the Posta Al Cervo from €819.
All prices are based on January departures 7 and include transfers. Crystal Ski fly every Saturday direct from Dublin to Verona, with connections direct to Selva.
Tel: 01 4331010